It is only toward the end of Medicine for Melancholy, an independent film by newcomer Barry Jenkins (it premiered at SXSW 2008), that protagonist Micah—The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac—really gets to the point.
“Think about it!” he bursts out. “Just think about it–everything about being ‘indie’ is all tied to not being black. Friends who are indie—white. Bands who are ‘indie.’ Like okay, you got TV on the Radio, but the rest of them are white,” he tells Jo', the beautiful woman he's tooling around town with in the wake of their one-night stand.
His outburst comes after this black twenty-something "couple?"—each the ultimate hipster in Vans, Ray-Bans, riding fixed-gear bikes, and all—has just spent the day not only wandering through the implications of their hook up—she has a boyfriend (who's white), but also wandering into urban politics.
On the whole, Medicine for Melancholy seems like a micro-movie. It deals with everyday, personal details like one-night stands and exes (his is also white). And much of the film is “scored” with the natural sounds of traffic, clinking glasses, urination, or fabric rubbing together as people move.
However, these everyday details merge with the tangible politics of being black in S.F.; a city whose history of gentrification has centered largely on the displacement of black people, who now make up a mere 6.5% of its population (down from 13.4% in 1970).
As their stroll continues through the streets into the evening, Jo’ and Micah come upon a Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco meeting—this is an actual group (the URL is advertised in the credits), and these its actual members. The activists are talking about the potential disappearance of rent control in San Francisco. Apparently, this would affect 350,000 central dwellings, occupied by the city’s poorest residents.
This local political message is magnified by Micah’s (and the filmmaker’s, obviously) emotional investment in San Francisco. Micah—likely speaking for Jenkins—loves San Francisco’s accessible beauty: “Any man who can find himself a street corner has got himself a view,” he says.
And the award-winning cinematography, beautifully directed by DP James Laxton, highlights this investment and view. Indeed, it’s with the actual filmmaking—the footage, the view—where the micro and macro merge. Jenkins employs mostly long takes, which give the viewer time to examine the details. The camera lingers on the streets, from cab windows and apartment balconies.
Shot in de-saturated digital video, it strips the city of its color and much of its immediately recognizable features. Without color, the eye turns to the play of light in ethereal, whited-out daytime vistas and grainy night scenes. S.F.’s iconic and monumental architecture, in particular the Golden Gate Bridge, is absent. This is a street-level San Francisco, the views of the city that you see just walking around on a bright day or on a clear evening. It is beautiful, but not a postcard; this outlook is personal.
Catch Medicine for Melancholy at Northwest Film Forum Friday, February 20 through Thursday, February 26 at 7 and 9pm. Director Barry Jenkins will be in attendance February 23-26! Don’t miss it! We’re one of only five cities to get it.
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